If Miliband’s first call on Thursday evening is not to Nick Clegg then he is making a mistake
Picture the scene. It’s 10pm this Thursday and the exit poll is in. David Cameron stands with 285 seats, Ed Miliband on 272. The expected scenario has come to pass: Labour and the SNP can just about deliver a parliamentary majority, but the whole issue of legitimacy is immediately raised by whatever Conservative talking heads have pitched up to the various studios. They then go live to some rosette-wearing Labour shadow minister. So what next?
Firstly, in this instance Cameron will not only have the constitutional right to attempt to form a government, Tory spinners will likely immediately float a coalition with Clegg backed by the DUP. He’ll have lost seats, but by dealing with the Liberals and some element of the Celtic fringe he’ll be able to get tantalisingly close to the magic 323 (assuming Sinn Fein, as ever, do not take their seats). Of course this was true of Gordon ‘Squatter’ Brown five years ago, but here the right-wing press will actually have their man in situ and the anti-Miliband barrage will soon follow.
So Labour need to get their counterargument in almost as soon as Big Ben has finished chiming.
For this, Ed needs one of two things. Option one is for UKIP to come into serious play. The Conservative line about Labour getting into bed with nationalists who want to break up the Union is not just right-wing spin, it would have a large chunk of truth behind it. This is not only about whether Sturgeon could be persuaded to rule out a referendum within the lifetime of the parliament, but the general raw deal the English increasingly feel the Barnett formula provides them with. Good luck in Southampton, Corby or Basildon in 2020 if Labour don’t play this right.
But equally, claiming to speak as a consensual, serenely above party politics, and truly ‘national’ prime minister is more difficult when you’re unable to refute the possibility of a deal with Nigel Farage. Ed can, Cameron may not be able to – although all bets are off if the Conservatives hold Thanet South. For all the tuition fees u-turn, it is difficult to see Clegg brokering a deal with UKIP that involves an EU referendum and remaining Lib Dem leader. So there may be wiggle room.
And thus secondly – and this is the most intriguing scenario numbers-wise – Ed needs the combined non-SNP progressive vote to constitute a majority of the voting public (or very close to it). This takes a loose definition of Liberal Democrat support and is absolutely on a knife edge anyway. Labour’s current 33 per cent in the polls plus 9 per cent for Clegg, 5 per cent for the Greens, and perhaps 1 per cent from Plaid/the SDLP gets you to 48 per cent, just short.
It’s a technical point but the semantics matter. Whilst attention is understandably on the Labour-Tory swing, the biggest undercurrent is whether that ‘progressive’ 48 per cent can become 50.1 per cent. Once Miliband can speak of a ‘progressive and legitimate’ voting majority then his potential premiership may be in business regardless of whether he can get to 323 seats (which he certainly couldn’t in the above scenario). They should have been quicker on this in 2010.
The downside here is that this will only truly be known by Friday. So Ed’s spinners need to change the story from Labour having to placate an SNP who have just thumped them north of the border to his being a man willing to work with others, but not to kowtow to those who wish to break up the Union. In reality this means dealing with the SNP on a vote by vote basis, but he needs to spread the burden of that task.
This is true not only if Labour succeed in cobbling together a deal but if arguably even more so if they can’t. Labour famously undercooked their offer to the Lib Dems five years ago which gave the Lib Dems freedom to walk with at least short-term credibility. This cannot happen again.
Most of the Lib Dem red lines are eminently do-able. If Miliband’s first call on Thursday evening is not to Nick Clegg then he is making a mistake. Vince Cable in the cabinet (39.5 per cent of Labour activists would back him as deputy prime minister), even a chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster type sinecure for Caroline Lucas. These are more than acceptable prices if Labour are serious about power.
On the latter point it is worth noting the sheer folly of Labour’s fighting Brighton Pavilion at this election. I wrote in One Nation Britain a year ago that they should have foregone this seat in favour of Green candidates standing down elsewhere. I’d now go further: arguably they should just have foregone it come what may.
Whether or not you agree with Russell Brand on the merits of Caroline Lucas (and clearly she outpolls her party), the key strategic point is that the Green vote needs to have weight when it comes to articulating a broad ‘progressive platform.’ If, as expected, the Greens get at least 5 per cent, then this figure will matter so much more if they have parliamentary representation. Labour should have sought to virtually guarantee this.
But we are where we are. If the Conservatives break any higher than 290 it’s game over. Anything short of that and Labour need to be reframing the conversation. 48-49 per cent of people will vote for non-Scottish progressive parties and it will only be the SNP preventing a progressive majority. In this scenario Nick Clegg becomes a saint and Nicola Sturgeon a sinner, but thems the breaks.
One of Ed’s virtues is that, despite many years of tutelage under the very tribal Gordon Brown, he’s fundamentally a consensual politician. The stuff about being ‘tough enough’ and the carving of a Moses style stone has rung totally false with all but the most on-message Labour apparatchiks – precisely because it is.
Frankly, as yet, Miliband does not look prime ministerial – but this a quality most readily acquired from actually being appointed to that job. And so as the polls close this Thursday another Miliband can emerge. This is a more gritty opportunity which some Labour activists may not like, but it is one, for sure, that the Tories would (rightly) take in a heartbeat.
There are two paths for Miliband. He can either go down in history as the guy who scraped home to win the leadership, under-polled his party, and then barely improved on a pretty low 2010 base, or as a genuinely One Nation prime minister who looked beyond narrow party interest at a moment when this was sorely needed. As every politician says, we must wait to see what the electorate throws up before 10pm on Thursday. But it looks likely that what Miliband does at 10.01pm will be of paramount importance.
Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He has recently published a book, One Nation Britain. He writes in a personal capacity